Earlier this year I spent more than a few lazy summer afternoons hoofing freshly shucked oysters at new Viaduct darling Saint Alice, but this was my first visit after nightfall, for dinner. It’s large and it’s loud with post-work banter and bassy beats, but you get that with a bar/ eatery, which Saint Alice is, albeit with much firmer sights on cuisine than many. There are myriad design elements going on in this lofty, Ctrl Space– executed place, but it pulls together in a lived-in, slightly nautical manner.
Head chef Maia Atvars is ex-Depot and it shows, the menu having the dual focus of the raw bar and woodfired grill. On all my visits, service has been a little mixed but the more experienced senior staff seem to take charge and keep a handle on things. We’re promptly seated, watered and ordered. The menu comes with that popular note that dishes will come out as they’re prepared, which is fine – except when (which is basically always) the table size is not up for the job. I’m used to that awkward shuffle to make space for each arriving dish, but here, our less-experienced and rushed waiter just plonked the heavy ceramic dishes down on the table without warning – once on top of my phone and twice cantilevering precariously off the edge.
Thankfully the food that graced those dishes balanced said plonking. From the raw bar, coaxed just out of their natural state, were plump Marlborough tua tua, lightly grilled with a topping of housemade kimchi, sourdough crumbs and a drizzle of chilli oil. My 2014 Muddy Waters Waipara Riesling had enough guts to stand up to the perfectly pitched piquancy of this dish. With older brother eatery and brewery Dr Rudi’s next door, there are some good options on the beer list, such as Rudi’s No Sleep til Brooklyn APA, its citrus flavours working well with the punchy flavours on the menu. From the smaller plates menu but looking anything but was smoked bone marrow; three very large pieces that had enough smokiness to add depth but not overwhelm, a gremolata-like topping of chopped parsley and cornichons, and beautifully thin slices of sourdough on which to spread rich marrow morsels. At $16, the marrow is incredible value. Our larger dishes arrived at the same time; I do think the overall experience would be improved if there could be even a slight staggering, but I suspect the wait for our smaller dishes, at half an hour, was longer than usual which caused the mains to catch up too quickly.
A woodfired eggplant was subtle on the promised miso and coffee but shouted proudly about its time on the grill, branded with umami-enriching dark stripes. A topping of shiitake mushrooms could have been more generous, the other main element being more eggplant, albeit a wonderfully smoky purée. A tart strained yoghurt with garlic and razor-thin slices of both garlic and ginger cut through nicely.
The sesame lavosh, while lovely on its own, submitted to the heat of the dish and grew soft. Woodfired bavette steak with crisp garlic potatoes and a beerbolstered fondue was pure, rich comfort food. The steak was cut along the grain which meant it was chewier than necessary, a surprise as I have no doubt ex-Depot Atvars is expert in such cuts, but perhaps others in the kitchen need further enlightenment. A 2016 De La Terre Hawke’s Bay Syrah and 2011 Brassknocker Central Otago Pinot Noir were perfect foils for this richness, though it should be noted our (more experienced) waiter slipped up here and mis-identified the wines she delivered.
Choices of dessert are limited: we shared the coconut tapioca pudding. This deserved to be plated with more care; as it was it looked a little – sorry about this – dog’s dinner-ish. However, the pudding offered up evocative floral flavour notes and came with dabs of passionfruit gel, pomegranate arils, hazelnut tuilles, and sliced green kiwifruit, and was exactly the right note on which to end a tasty meal of robust flavours and generous proportions.